In July 2002, I was 22, working like a dog in medical sales, and enjoying another summer of “fun in the sun” when work allowed. I am from Greek heritage, have dark hair and dark eyes, and sunburns are foreign to me. My family has always enjoyed the lake, the pool, and everything that goes along with hot southern summers, and we have NO melanoma history in my family. I live in the same city I grew up in, and I know many local physicians through my family and my job.
All it took was one trip to the dermatologist to turn my world upside down. I had gone in for an appointment to get information about products that could help with some facial breakouts I was having. As I got up off of the chair, I scraped my back against the metal edging on the side. As I felt a quick pain, I instantly remembered there was a “spot” on my back that had bled against my beautiful brand new white bath towels. I asked the nurse if she would look at it because I couldn’t see what it was, but it wasn’t going away and I had just irritated it on the chair. She took a look and said she wanted Dr. S to look. He came back in and said what I remember to be reassuring: “Let’s take it off because it bled, but I am sure it is nothing because it tiny and looks totally normal.” “How tiny?” I asked. “A little bigger than a pin head,” he replied.
So, he did a punch biopsy and I was on my way. It was a Thursday.
Monday rolled around, and I was standing in a surgery working when the OR phone rang. The circulating nurse said it was for me. “Odd,” I thought. I answered the phone.
“Meredith, this is Dr. S. I got the results back on that biopsy we took and it is melanoma. I have called Dr. K’s office and he is going to add you onto the surgery schedule for tomorrow at 4:00pm.” I just stood there motionless. Over my surgical mask, the tears began to flow. The surgeon I was working with stopped and wanted to know what was going on. I excused myself from the room, and I can remember the overwhelming feeling of being claustrophobic and needing air. Once I regained my composure, I called my dad, who is also a physician. I told him what Dr. S has said. He said he would call Dr. K directly and find out what exactly I needed to have done and what the prognosis was.
This MUST be a mistake.
They have mixed up my pathology report with someone else. Right?
I had to work on Tuesday. I worked all day, and then at 2:00pm, I went to pre-op to check in and change into a gown. It was surreal. I had been there helping doctors and patients, and now I was the patient. After awhile, they rolled me back to surgery. The whole time I kept thinking, this HAS to be a mistake.
On Friday, Dr. K called to say the depth was .88mm, which basically meant I was in the “gray zone” for the sentinal node biopsy. At that point I realized, there was absolutely no mistake. I decided go ahead with the biopsy. Better safe than sorry. So 6 days after the melanoma excision, I was scheduled for surgery #2. They injected the dimethelyne blue into the incision, and then I was placed in the scanner to see where the dye tracked. I watched on a small screen as the dye followed the path. I was mentally preparing myself.
There it goes… tracking to the left groin lymph nodes. I can do this. It is going to be okay.
I was calm and collected until the nurse pulled down my gown and with a black sharpie placed a rather large black “X” on my right breast/armpit.
WAIT!!!!! It went to my groin!!!!! Why are you marking my breast?!
I was overwhelmed with emotion. I started to hyperventilate. My legs went numb. I was crying. “Please tell me what this means!” “You were looking at the screen upside down. What you thought was tracking South, was actually tracking North. So the part of your back where the melanoma was, drains to the axial nodes in your right armpit. Dr. K will go in and remove all the nodes that are blue.” She rolled me back to pre-op. Mentally, I was a wreck, and it didn’t help that my entire family was staring at me fighting back tears of fear.
The pathology report came back on Tuesday … clear. I never thought CLEAR would become one of my favorite words, but it is.
This summer marks my 10-year anniversary of being melanoma free. I guess I am what you call the “exception to the rule” of who melanoma most likely effects. It just goes to show that cancer of any kind isn’t picky. If you are alive, then it could be you.
I have had many small excisions since then (I like to refer to myself as a looking like a “pin cushion”) and am currently awaiting the pathology report on a spot (suspected basal cell) that I had removed this morning. I think about the past 10 years of my life and what I would be missing if I hadn’t just “happened” to have that nurse look at my back.
It is truly hard to imagine.